It should come as no surprise that Michael Chabon, with his latest novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, has delivered a high concept work of genre fiction. That’s par for the course for Chabon. More broadly speaking, Union’s detective novel form will be familiar, but Chabon has made it his own by superimposing the story on a rewritten history, one in which the world’s Jewish population was offered a temporary homeland in Alaska following World War II. The conceit is taken from a plan that was actually floated in the late 1930s but never actually went anywhere.
But though Chabon has crafted an entire alternate universe to explore, one that seemed to me would be rich with narrative possibilities when I first heard about the book, he uses it instead as little more than backdrop for a detective story of fairly straightforward construction. Not unlike bustling Bangkok provides the colorful backdrop for John Burdett’s mystery novels, not unlike Michael Connelly’s L.A. or George Pelecanos’ D.C. As with many detective novels, both well-crafted and pulp, it is the setting that sets Union apart.
Though more ambitious conceptually than his previous work, Union isn’t exactly new territory for Chabon. His Pulitzer winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay invents The Escapist, a superhero that captures the public consciousness during the 20th century alongside Superman and Batman. While that’s not as impressive an imaginative feat as moving a whole people to the snowy hinterland, it frees Chabon to take his readers from Prague to New York City with a memorable interlude in Antarctica. Kavalier & Clay spans decades and incorporates the century’s wars and social movements. In Union we are stuck in the crumbling neighborhoods of Sitka, where a dull grayness follows the action. Through fog, snow, and grime our hero Detective Meyer Landsman plods in his pursuit of a murderer.
In many ways Landsman is cut from a familiar “hard-boiled” mold. He is divorced, borderline alcoholic, and living in a fleabag hotel. Though ostensibly washed up, Landsman is preternaturally good at what he does, and Landsman’s nearly superhuman powers of observation allow Chabon to unleash a flurry of descriptors and minutia upon every character we meet. “His herringbone trousers are stained with egg yolk, acid, tar, epoxy fixative, sealing wax, green paint, mastodon blood.” “His skin is as pale as a page of commentary. His hat perches on his lap, a black cake on a black dish.” Elsewhere, the prose is peppered with Yiddish, the preferred tongue of Jewish Alaska.
Landsman isn’t all hard bitten though. He seems to swing between bravado and self-pity. After Landsman is made aware of a murder that his occurred in his hotel, the murder that is the crux of the book’s plot, he must investigate a tunnel leading from the basement, and Chabon takes the opportunity to lay out Landsman’s internal contradictions:
Landsman is a tough guy in his way, given to the taking of chances. He has been called hard-boiled and foolhardy, a momzer, a crazy son of a bitch. He has faced down shtarkers and psychopaths, been shot at, beaten, frozen, burned. He has pursued suspects between the flashing walls of urban firefights and deep into bear country. Heights, crowds, snakes, burning houses, dogs schooled to hate the smell of a policeman, he has shrugged them all off or he has functioned in spite of them. But when he finds himself in lightless or confined spaces, something in the animal core of Meyer Landsman convulses. No one but his ex-wife knows it, but Detective Meyer Landsman is afraid of the dark.
Landsman is, indeed, afraid of the dark, but the darkness is just another demon that haunts him, like the break up of his marriage to Inspector Bina Gelbfish (who has recently become Landsman’s boss), and the death of his sister Naomi.
But whatever clinical diagnosis fits the brooding Landsman, this book is not a character study, it is a mystery novel. Initially, the dead man appears to be an anonymous junkie, but, as if to justify Chabon’s alternate universe, the conspiracy that surrounds the death only grows until we see its global implications.
This all dovetails with the overarching predicament of the Alaskan Jews. Their settlement up north was never meant to be permanent, and now, in the present day, political machinations have led to the impending “Reversion” that will set them wandering once again.
It was this conceit that had me salivating for this book, but instead Union amounts to a 432-page detective story, colorful and filled with dazzling prose, but weighed down by a clunky plot that schleps along and attempts to live up to Chabon’s grand premise.